Short Story: Sodden Holo

Sopping mud trails formed miniature canyons in the streets. As if some precise giant had dug slender fingers into the Earth between sections and sides of town. Carts, wagons, their beasts of burden, and all other manner of creatures formed them.

Their sopping troughs were scattered about town between what little remained of eroded, patchwork-cobble. What remained of once-prominent holographic projectors and neon signs glowed and flickered dimly advertising everything from taverns to seamstresses, buds to brothels. The opaque movements of a thousand different advertisements and static signs belched Technicolor light onto stone and rotting-wood.

That disease of neglect, civic abandonment, stretched across the almost-forgotten township.

But within Sodden Holo, it was the Empire that was forgotten. Life was squalor, no doubt, but squalor of a kind with charm and routine. The type only available when living in freedom, without a mythical force beyond the realm to oppress. Because it cared not for them nor they for it, they were passive.

Then the caravan came.

They’d holed up outside town two days before anyone attempted contact. Then, sent a trio of armed men to the tavern. They wore black and green and gold, and asked questions. Many questions. Gruffly and rudely: on where to secure supplies, seek shelter, the names of prominent men and women and aldermen.

Already these vectors of disease had begun to infect, spread. Money. The stranglehold. They’d throw it around, hoping to mesmerize or hypnotize. Great mounds of it. Gold, silver, copper– jewels even. They’d trade anything, had everything or access to it. Like any siege engine, if allowed, that money-disease would go to work breaking down walls.

Fact was, people in Sodden Holo didn’t much care for money or the Empires. They gummed up the works, but were not seen as evil. Money in particular was no evil, but rather another tool to barter with. As equal to that of gold or silver in the eyes of the trader and their desire.

This was the Empires’ new kind of war. One of economics. For hearts, minds. Not permanent, but enough to quell the fringes ready to rise in revolt. As in every iteration of civilization, it was yet another overlord’s controls. The Empires, when it mattered most, lavished wealth upon people like confetti, but only for adoration’s sake. Never stability’s.

People furthest from the constant influx of money– Empirical capitals and the like– were beginning to piece that together. Money however, when it could not quell the occasionally rising tempers, gave excuse for lashing-out against one’s own people.

Times were that every Human was an island and ruler unto their self. Between then and now, it had become painfully clear that was no longer the plan for greater Humanity. Some people were allowed that, sure: rulers, mostly. The other 99 times out of 100, they weren’t. About 85 of those 99 meant being smeared in shit and grime the rest of one’s life regardless of those privileged few.

That was Humanity’s choice. Long made in a world far-longer gone. In a time and people that no longer existed. Human-Social had given way, violently, to Human-Servile. Whatever side one chose, the bitter reality was clear: servitude was undeniably its base.

Whether serving the wealthy, their associates, their system of wealth-creation, or anyone else therein, it was impossible not to be beneath someone.

But that was a world and way of thinking long-off for Sodden Holo. Neither glamour nor shine existed there, technicolor belches notwithstanding, save on the local boot-black’s corner. How could it? Half the town was streaked in mud all the warmer months, frozen over the rest. It knew of life in the colors of grit and grime, the scents of grass and cow shit.

In short, through the ways of the land, its inhabitants, their effects on it.

For those passing through, it was obvious this was a land separate, but governed. Whomever did the governing, they knew, did it well enough so the only signs of civic neglect were the roads the Holo could not repair without all-important and scarcematerials traded mostly by Empirical quartermasters or tradesmen. It was a way of strangle-holding the people from establishing Empires without their knowledge.

But progress was inexorable. Its tide could not be diverted forever, nor without constant attention to details, lest the dam crack asunder.

Yet time and people marched on. Roads appeared. Trails. All of them, it seemed, led through Sodden Holo– at some point. Distant or rare as it was for some, it was undeniable.

They were a crossroads hub, but not the kind one thought of lightly. Rather, it was one all travelers ended up in by misfortune. It didn’t judge. Nor did its people. But they, like it, knew it was no-one’s intended stop. Yet that need not mean a traveler feel unduly unwelcome either.

They took no quarter for the worst of atrocities, of course, like most decent folk. Only when bitten did the hand that fed, strike out though. Especially against those most unforgivably biting. What Dante might have termed, “Treason against one’s benefactors.” To that, such punishments never came unduly, nor ever with malice but meant to correct.

That didn’t mean it couldn’t turn bloody.

In hindsight, people came to realize, that was what the Empire had underestimated. That people wouldn’t give it the same disregard it gave them. They’d sent a caravan of Empirical guards to enact a trade-war on a free economy. Rather than send ambassadors to join or appraise it, they sought to take it by force, with nary a thought to those effected.

Hindsight couldn’t change those effects.

Their intent became apparent the second day the envoy visited town– fifth since their appearance overall. It was raining. A typical persistent and swampy mist citizens and drifters had come to expect of Sodden Holo, its surroundings: warm, and smelling of earthen protection rising from the very ground beneath their feet.

Reason had left most of those in the pubs. Meanwhile, the tension of the envoy’s encampment, brewing since its appearance, had soured and afouled a great many moods.

The air was rife with power. As those trembling within the tavern were well-aware, it was a power no mortal dared tempt. All it would take to set the power alight was the wrong actions within it. The wrong minds, the type that cared not for maintaining peace or others’ ways.

Five of them entered the tavern. Two remained near the door, guarding ‘til further orders. Two more escorted a third between them. He was tall, scrawny. Spectacles perched on his face, he looked and moved like an old Eagle– perpetually down-looking, on the hunt.

He approached the bar, calling for the tender to procure the manager.

The tender laughed, “You dunno how things work a-roun’ ‘ere.”

His tone sharpened, “I beg your pardon?”

“No. You don’t. You come in ‘ere with your bloody gold and silver, try to buy the place. Why else would you lot come in, all pompous, clutchin’ that ledger like some kind’a King bout to lay his prick on the bar?

“I ain’ sellin you nor your dogs another drink ‘til I get some answers. I been Alderman of Sodden Holo, twen’y years. Empires never given us the time’a day. Never answered our letters or requests for help.

“All the same, we get by. ‘Cause we hav’ta. You come in here, wanna lay your prick on my bar like I don’t know what’s bout to happen. But I’m tellin you, I’ve seen prick-whippin’ enough times I can sense it a mile off.”

The shrewd man’s face snarled. The bar was deathly silent. The tender eyed the two ruffians beside him; former mercs, paid better as Empirical Guardsmen for their skill in battle. These were not men to be lightly crossed.

The tender’s face hardened at hints of blood-lust on the air. The power had turned. Sodden Holo would soon be bathed in blood.

“You g’wan and put your prick out, mister. ‘N I’ll make sure to cut it to size for you.”

A hiss. “The nerve!

Someone screamed. Metal clashed. The power erupted, releasing ferocity across the tavern. Chaos of bodies and limbs flayed. Blood sprayed. An all-out melee began and ended within seconds. By the end, the bar stank of blood and bowels, beneath echoing screams from dying and injured.

The Alderman-Tender was busy bandaging a gash in a woman’s arm when he called to, “Raze the Envoy’s camp. Leave nothing standing!”

Every man and woman capable would need to be ready. The Empire would be coming.

The tender looked over the ruins of his bar, knowing for the better of all he should have sold out. But if he had, what would be left of him to help his people, his home? The Empire was not the way forward for Sodden Holo, that much had always been obvious.

But would there be any way forward now? He wasn’t sure.

Unable to dwell, he moved on, too swept up in doing what he knew all would soon be doing: preparing for war.

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Short Story: The Pigeon Problem

It was the damnedest thing when it first began happening. To say no-one expected it was an understatement, but neither was there much surprise involved.

Understand the state of the world at the time: the whole damned place was on fire. Humans weren’t sure they’d live out the day, let alone a century or millennia. Of course, that led to a lot of short-sighted mistakes, but every reaction bears an equal and inverse action.

It only made sense that something had happened to all of those old fucks ruining things. Gender politics muddied the waters, but it was obvious who the problem was, male or female. It was even more obvious they were all fucking stup–

There goes my own prejudice again… hugghhhhh.

We knew they weren’t the smartest bunch. It had to be genetics. The average person is neither burdened nor emboldened by their Humanity. They exist in a state of existence, subsistence, and occasional resistance. Mixed and matched in various forms, this is what concocts the Human-everything. Enough that it has managed all of Human greatness thus far.

Who’d have thought it could go away? Like, really… away. Or not be there in the first place?

Meanwhile, the utter lack of surprise is self-explanatory. Hundreds of thousands– then millions of Humans were suddenly the equivalent to walking vegetables, nothing out of the ordinary. Now however, they seemed incapable of doing little more than occasionally putting hand to mouth.

Apart from being utterly unhelpful, it was mystifying. Grown adults who’d spent their whole lives working in office blocks, commuting to and from marbled-staircased homes with large families, now incapable of little more than feeding themselves.

They could stand about, move if prompted, and often were seen flocked on street-corners as if pigeons. So, that’s what they became: Pigeons. Save with eerily less motion. It was as if the groups of once-besuited, rag-tattered creatures had become a hive-mind no-longer coherent of its imitated species.

But how? How could it be possible for any creature to suddenly shift so intensely, let alone a group so immense and varied as they?

In the studies conducted since the First Occurrence, of which there are three, enough has been concluded to confirm the cause as Genetic. It is, along with other factors, much of the similarity that binds the hive-minded groups to one another. Hive-minded though, is misleading. A hive-mind may have a goal or objective, whereas these creatures are more empty-minded.

Had they existed in the time of Siddhartha Gautama, they might have been termed to the effect of Śūnya-Buddha, orvoid-enlightened one.

In essence, they’re Human hardware running no software. Perfectly functional in every way, but uninhabited by anything resembling the Godhead or Soul, Consciousness or Humanity. They’re Human blanks, reactive but never active, like a PC at POST– spooling hardware-test on ingrained command, instinct.

Buddhists themselves have postulated Śūnya might mean more Consciousnesses are achieving the Godly realms, and these creatures are the byproduct. Mostly though, they’re just empty. They have no software, no operating system. Merely functional components functioning until they can’t any longer. A sort of natural phenomenon from closed-sentience tracts of evolution, as in the case of some primates.

Occasionally too, like pigeons, one is found in the gutter. Dying or dead doesn’t matter, little can be done then save to show mercy.Such extremes are rare, though, and their idle time is spent flocking from place-to-place, picking scraps. They are more an occasional nuisancethan the plague carriers they once were.

Given the alternatives, it’s a relief really.

The irony is lost on no-one save the Pigeons themselves, but faulting something like that for not understanding its world fundamentally misunderstands its nature.

So, what is their nature?

Officially classified as Pseudo-Sapiens Homo-Śūnya after someone thought the name fitting, its mythology therein spawned itself. Regardless of academics, they are the empty-people. Incapable of retaining memories or planning beyond moment-to-moment flashes, these creatures suffer from newly-termed Zero-Oneness Disorder: unable to feel or function as is clinically normal for Humans.

The First Occurrence revealed it, astounding the world.

Random people suddenly brain-dead on the streets, driving their cars, sitting or moving about in their homes. Powerful, prominent, or aspiring, anyone was effected.

But there was no chaos. Just confusion.

In everything since, one thing’s known: the presence of a select few was wholly ignored by the majority. Or in some cases, entirety. The effect, rather than outrage, was nothingness. It seemed counter to Human-Psychology– the first clue to the then-termed “illness” and its origins.

Hospitals overflowed. General Practitioners, some seeing a patient or less a week, were suddenly overflowing. Short staffed E-Ds and Psych-wards led to public panic over the growing dangers to overall public health.

However, the Second Occurrence disproved the idea as an illness, reinforcing it as a genetic indication of Human and non-Human separation. Coming shortly after news that a common gene-trait had be found in all of the “sufferers,” it was learned this and other traits were tied to known genetically-guided pathological-personality types.

It was thereafter obvious how to identify Pigeons in the wild, avoid them if desired.

By the Third Occurrence any hints of panic and chaos had subsided. The issue was tempered. Enough that now focus could shift to prevention, treatment. Doctor-patient tidings were at an all time low, but the establishment of specific health-centers for those wishing not to let their Pigeons live abroad. Neither was a terrible diagnosis, really.

Unfortunate? Certainly. Not life-threatening though. The Pigeon Problem It could be handled, and there was help: that alone made things infinitely easier.

Yet hard decisions were, and often still are, made.

The whole sequence of events engendered only a little more restraint in the Human Ego. Never a bad thing given its history and propensity for violence. In keeping with its methods, too, Pigeons reaffirmed what Science strived to remind: thateach action incurred an equal and inverse reaction.

Pigeons were Humanity’s anti-particle, the negative to their positive– but for the species, Humanity, as a whole. Nothing really surprising, just unexpected. And lucky, in a way.

The Pigeons turned out to, every single one of them, down to the very last, have the same corruptible personality flaws making them easily identifiable. Many theories on their origins in the greater scheme argue genetics, personality-reflection, andnature’s serendipitous reality are equally at fault. Yet all agree on the most telling, and thus defining of Pigeon traits– the one that, during the Second Occurrence became so clear and allowed for the Śūnya child-testing:

Every damned Pigeon was a fucking politician.

We should’ve known!

Short story: Fire Dark

Darkness loomed over the land like eternal midnight. A kind of darkness so deep, it became lit by its own obsidian, atom-honed edges. Amid it, were the gnarled roots of the tree of life. Ruts of Earthen-tangle deep enough to bury even the sturdiest climber. They reached upward into a stalk of barren, petrified limbs like old ventricles in a fossilized heart.

The stars seemed not to exist above them. Nor clouds or moon.

Dead leaves rustled in the distance, stirred from some forgotten hollow eternally belching them. War had swept through the land. Night came. Bombers spewed fire like dragon’s breath. By day, what lay not in ruin would slowly crumble to it.

Little was ever rebuilt. Most was cannibalized: chiseled away by the dual forces of need and time. Their actuators of brute force and terror. What remained was bone, fasting in darkness for eternity. Never to be seen again. Forgotten.

The spark of Humanity had dimmed, but so too had all else. Life itself, so far as all evidence suggested, was flickering and might soon fade. The terror that alone brought with it was underscored by one, haunting question: who would be last to go?

Day-by-day, what few abominable creatures managed to eke out an existence, did so by suckling moisture from corrupted dregs. Each breath, each drop, poison and necessary.

Those feeling the call, what might once have been termed honor, were rising in the stupor of all blood-drenched and ready to die. They knew of nothing. Felt nothing. Save the knowledge that death must be had, and the greater it, the greater the deed.

He was like that. Sitting across the fire, head draped in mail. Face empty and sallow. There was no telling how long he’d been on the road. His face, at first hidden, shorn with tattered links fraying from overuse. He’d tanked more than a few blows to the coif.

The crest-shield of a forgotten clan rest at his side, half covering the sword that now lay bare. Its hilt, still in-hand but resting rather than clasped. This creature knew only the ways of death and fire. Each step in its world was a battle against one for the other. Why, was not certain: only that something drove it onward.

Time passed. How long cannot be said. Omnipresent gloom turned morning into afternoon as much as evening into midnight. A heave of breath escaped the creature’s lips. A mannish sort of grunt. Mail scraped and strained. The creature rose as if mechanical, its sword metallic and polished in blood.

He stopped astride at the other creature’s gaze. The one whose perception made sure to ground his reality. Enough so it remained existent to uphold its shackles through him. He turned his face toward the gazing creature, something alike and different about it at the same time.

With a slight inclination of his head, the gazer corrected him.

Not that way. Death lies that way.

I seek Death.

The exchange thus ended, the creature turned again to leave. This time he did not step. On the ground the light sound of metal hitting stone.

Take it.

The gazer was standing now. Knowing he could do no better good than to aid the abomination. Even if he failed, he’d tried. That was more goodness than any else in the world. Especially in these times. As if the very soul and fire of Humanity rested on such actions, the armored creature defied will and turned back only a step.

There, he stooped. Lifting the trinket to the firelight reflecting off the obsidian skies. A gem glittered: hope’s eternal flame in abounding darkness. He removed a gauntlet, threading a gangrenous-looking digit through the ring. Then, fitting the gauntlet back on, he turned away hesitating only slightly in his step.

His coif shuffled in attempt to look back, but the angle of his destiny was too strong. The current of death too swift, and the fire too bright now. No longer healing, but burning. He breathed and started off again.

Armor echoed through the night for far too long. The remaining creature stood, one ring poorer yet richer within somehow. He knew not why. Only that he’d acted on a compulsion. As that of the creature whom sought that light so vehemently even death could not stop it.

Because in the end, it seemed, even the darkest soul carried light within it.

Short Story: Huntmaster

Skeletal steel and concrete rose as sharp darkness in gray light, stalagmites threatening the sky impotently while the ground devoured them over eons. Once the seats of Kings, Titans, Tyrants, now they were little more than remnant bones of an old world. One lost to myth and time equally: Former SkyGods’ temples now consigned to decay, as with all lost epochs.

Perhaps one day, such remnants would be excavated: dug from the depths to be better understood. Those few living and aware of the possibility, doubted its happening.

Their numbers were fewer each day.

Krant had learned the hard way that it was impossible to rebuild what had been lost. Though there were arguments what was lost didn’t deserve reconstruction, they were academic. For scholars, by scholars. Theoretical works at most.

More, they were distractions. Attempts to ignore the issue at-hand, rather than address it. Nothing was being done, globally. Civilization was stagnating. The animal-Human, too, because of it. That was all that mattered.

When Humans needed most to ensure their survival as a species, that was unacceptable.

Krant knew of the Empires, distantly. The mountains were his home. Like his village, no-one cared to attempt conquering what could be neither easily reached nor exploited. It made him more qualified than most to impartially examine anything– everything.

Life worked differently in the mountains, honing one in some ways more than others, but mostly doing only that. Honing, tempering. It was a unique way of life: one of a kind. People at the base of the mountain, or in the plains, never worried but for the harshest of winters and driest of summers.

Mountain people worried and toiled all year.

Life in the plains was split into varying seasons, each accordant to the prosperity of the last. Off the mountain, people had breaks: time to watch crops grow before harvesting them. Krant’s people had no breaks. They ate only what they could hunt or slaughter infrequently, and foraged or grew the rest during the slight warming at mid-year that brought occasional sunlight. The rest was spent in hunting, fishing, general chores and hard labor.

Such lives were worlds apart.

Quite simply, Krant’s people were the Forgotten. They knew it, didn’t mind. Having never presented a threat to the Empire when it was building itself, Krant’s people were too far out to incorporate, and not worth the risk or effort to force out or hang otherwise. So, Krant and his family, their mountain village of thirty other families, lived as one entity, separated, and caring not for the Empires– nor likewise.

Yet no-one minded. Life was life. The villagers had been interlinking and splitting for a century or more: like the cells people knew they’d never again see. Some sought fortune and glory, peace, down or in the mountain. Some never left the village’s confines, tending to little more than herb gardens and hunting needs.

Still more, like Krant– and in each their own way, worked each day to strengthen their village, family, or people.

Krant himself often led Hunts, sharing the food procured freely with those nearest and neediest. Blood or not, they were all kin. He’d helped to build and lead death-pyres for at least one member of every family in the village. Often, more. He’d held his fair share of grieving masses at bay against the tumult of inner-turmoil. Enough that he felt the flesh of each as that of his own.

Level-headedness and sound logic had made him a leader in more than a few situations. Fortunately, none requiring much in the way of danger.

This would be different. Krant knew it even now. Something was happening in the forest. The trees were too still. On normal nights, what few tree-dwelling creatures remained in the world, often reported soundly until sunrise. Or else, they frolicked, hunted, or skittered to and fro amidst the leaves and grasses of one of Earth’s few greeneries.

Nocturnal animals, Krant as Huntmaster knew, had survived much of the cataclysm that had stolen the old world. Most theories put forth Human fear of the night in the first decades of the old-world’s collapse as cause. That fear, theoreticians postulated, allowed such animals to thrive, as Humans tended to hunt large prey (often predators) in twilight hours.

Simply, Humans killed predators as prey during daylight so their prey flourished at night.

That was the theory, anyhow. Krant wasn’t sure he believed it. He was certain of its effects. Presently, there was nothing in the trees. Nothing moving. Sounds faded the nearer the rising smoke came. Krant had tracking a wood-dog when he noticed it, he understood why now.

Two days before, he’d wounded the wood-dog: large and cunning like a wolf but descended from dogs rather than the other way around. It seemed what Evolution refined could refined itself– to terrifying result.

Nature had turned one of man’s best friend’s into its newest predatory nuisance.

Fortunately, they were abundant enough that a diet to be supplemented in the event of lean times. Carrying the rest of the village’s needs on his back meant he himself (and a few others at that) didn’t scoff at stray meat.

It had attacked, alone, about midnight.

Unlike most creatures, it sought campfires as a means to hunt or scavenge. Certain Canines no longer feared Humans, no matter the cost it might incur them in the end. Usually, they attacked in large packs that way. Overwhelming so that each man was caught off-guard when it began. In the case of this creature, only starvation would compel it.

It had been a lean winter.

It wouldn’t even be good enough to eat, Krant knew. The best he could do was put it out of its misery: nothing deserved the torture of starvation. Let alone when wounded, as he done to this one. So, an act of mercy had compelled him onward. The irony not lost on him that he’d eat it as likely as it him, given half the chance and starving.

Now, it was close. Somewhere nearby. He felt it in his gut. The smoke risingupwind meant it’d caught scent of the camp. Injured or not, it would attempt another meal.

Krant used it as an excuse to move in range of the fire. Its inner ring of light glowed half-obscured by tents in a grove of trees. Red, black, and white glittered proudly in the hidden grove, beneath low flames of a cooking spit.

Already the men were on their feet, swords drawn: Empirical men. Gruff voices.

“’Ow could they’uv got wind of it!?” One cried.

“Shut your goff, you fool,” another hissed. “It’s dogs. Dogs!”

Further ranting was drowned in what Krant knew to be true, but might never prove.

The sounds of the Wood-dog circled with a mournful howl. It off-balanced the men, frightened them. It leapt from behind a tent, knocking one of the men to the forest floor and dragging him off as it followed through. The others turned.

It was now or never. Krant acted on his gut, fearing only what he could not live with otherwise.

The world went red, then black. Krant was on the heels of the remaining, two men. They chased the dog as it drug their comrade. He chased them, driven by a force he knew but could not place. In a moment, he was atop the nearest man. His dagger plunged into his side from behind. Withdrew. Rose, slashed.

Moments of blood-warmth flashed in war-poses over gurgling sounds lost to time: Lightning-capturedimages of terror, like frames in old-world film.

Then, it was over. The Wood-dog was gone, one Empirical corpsemissing.

Krant’s blood-rage subsided. Its source mystifying but its cause obvious. He confirmed his suspicions after raiding the camp for supplies and information. There, in script form and signed by an Emperor’s Agent, orders to “seize and raze any unregistered settlements.”

The village!

Why else would the Empire have sent people here? Why else would they’ve been camping in these woods, so obviously trying not to be found? Krant wiped the last of the blood from his dagger, knowing the answer. He broke camp, using its most-flammable contents to build pyres for the bodies

He set them alight and walked off toward home.

Two things would never happen again from that day forward, Krant knew: he would never eat wood-dog again, and the Village would never be at-peace again. The Empire had just declared the extermination of “unregistered settlements.” That meant they were consolidating, constricting, exerting their authority to maintain control of their lands.

War was coming. Krant would be ready.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Raw Aether

I know of no magick,
like that which I’ve seen
through third-eyes,
or in-between dreams.

It is soft and supple.
Virgin and pure.
A reality beyond reality,
yet formed of raw aether.

It is there that it bore us,
unto this chaos of light,
and it is there we shall return,
whence comes the long goodnight.

Though we know not our purpose–
if indeed there be one–
we know we find service
in answering a call,
whether for light or darkness,
it matters not,
but we must remember,
the truth is in foresight.
It is but buried.
Yet given due time.
I too shall carry,
the aether’s death-sign.

Short Story: The Journey

Light cut inward at right angles around ancient, concrete block that formed the maze-like entrance of a small, former temple. Once a way-station for pilgrims, in an eon of isolationist practices, it had fallen into utter disrepair. However hidden its would-be caretakers were, they existed– even if losing faith at the world’s state.

The land around the flat-roofed temple was now a barren wasteland of petrified trees and Earthen refuse composting since time immemorial. Such grave-markers for the salted-Earth’s civilization ran far and wide. Were it not for the fiefdoms formed of generational, dictated procedures filling settlements with tradeable goods, even the most skilled and nomadic hunters would have nothing to fill their bellies.

Managing without the interference of any Empire was considered myth: the land too poor a provider otherwise.

Though little more than facades for war-lords of untold power and resource, the Empires’ glorious acts were touted regularly by town and heraldry criers, even if their names were not. These acts ensured people remained just misinformed enough to be ignorant of their Emperors’ true movements and motives.

But there was no-one in the brick-and-mortar former-temple to give care to the Empires or their backward warring. All that remained was a skittering lizard, invisible in the darkness and camouflaged in the light via slow-shifting photo-pigments in its skin.

It one-two’d across the floor. Three-four’ing both legs inversely tandem at each other. The front and back feet came together, ending their gate nearly touching. Excellent for tree-hanging, but poor for any hope of speed.

It was doing its best however, at running flat-out. Angling right. Left. Right again. Were it not for its immense length, and thus intimidating stature, it might have been comical.

It was not.

From the rear, it was a sight of relief. From beyond, one of terror. The figure atop the sandy, trunk-mined hill did not hesitate. It knelt, hands together, whispering quickly. Harsh syllabic resonance whistled with feminine sharpness over wind from nowhere. Gusts kicked up. Dirt and sand pelted debris in gale-force winds that stirred but never moved.

The charging creature reached the hill’s apex. Dexterous hands flashed, extended outward: wrists together, hands in a V.

Gale-forces boomed, focused like compressed air bolts. Wind deafened and off-balanced the creature first. Low-pressure jolted air from its lungs. The distant whistle, howled. Petrified trunks and limbs cracked and shattered at weak-points.

A phantom beam cracked, blowing the creature backward off the hilltop. It cleared the hill-bottom, landing painfully against the temple’s stone. A snap gave way to an agonized wail as it landed on its back with a series of grunting writhes. It failed to move, instead moaning pitifully.

She appeared and knelt beside it, hands together and whispering once more. One hand stroked the great eye of the fading creature as it wheezed. She soothed it with an angelic hum, it harmonized with another subsonic one, vibrating from her hand and lulling the creature into death.

The life slowly left its body without difficulty or pain.

That was always their way– her way. Never anyone else’s. How could it be? So few people understood anything anymore, let alone of themselves. One day again perhaps, the world would come to know the goodness she did. Now however, even she could not negate the need to survive. Not when it counted most.

She sat beside a small fire just inside the temple so as not to suffocate herself, but to still bathe in warmth against the nights’ growing cold. She’d scouted the place the night before, using her mind in meditation to see within it.

Seers, they’d once called them, but with one’s eyes closed “seeing” felt a misnomer. She was a sensor. Like one of the old-world’s fabled optics. People didn’t know or understand that though. How could they? The Empires had been keeping them ignorant and hungry for a millennia now.

She rose to turn the spit a while, doing so in silent contemplation.

If the information she sought to confirm was true, a new world might come of it. Something once thought lost, reborn from ash like the mythical phoenix. There was only one way to find out.

She slept with the fire’s coals still burning. Then, having eaten and secured as much of the prey as she could carry, she set out, leaving the creature’s remnants for scavengers. Were it not for them, she’d mused, the creature she’d filled her belly would never have camped here.

After all, Lord Darwin was strong in his understanding of nature. And it was he whom assured a hierarchy of life existed and affected itself and its environment. The latter’s inverse was equally, if not doubly, true: The old-world had learned that lesson the hard way, and its descendants were still suffering for it. Would be, possibly for life– like millions, billions more.

But there was only one way to be certain of any of it…

It was but a few days later she found herself on her knees, beaten and weathered from rough terrain, and her bodily wounds paling in comparison to those in her heart. She stared upward in mixed disbelief and despair, as if learning her Gods had betrayed her. It was not Gods however, nor even man. It was the Empires.

She saw it now. They were bee-hives with no queen and only one goal: maintain the self-aware Hive’s existence. The truth was staring her in the face now. She might have believed it before, but she knew it now. The evidence was here.

Long seeking some thread of stability in her confused world of war, pseudo-magic, and demi-gods that set fires but could not extinguish them, she’d thirsted for understanding, knowledge. The coven hadn’t answered her questions, even after an entire adolescence in their care. However distant she might’ve been otherwise, lack of answers increased it.

But now, there was truth. A truth she’d seen only with her own eyes, but that she would kill to ensure was known. How? Without the Empires’ interference? She couldn’t say yet. She re-read the words before her, knowing it would have to happen sooner or later.

Her jaw stiffened; learning one’s namesake bore itself a badge of responsibility in itself. Confirming hers, ensured she’d hold it to the highest standard.

There, beneath the millennia of soiled signage, Usa learned of the United States of America.

Yet the Empires had assured their existence was myth, as were what remained of their beliefs. Usa knew now it was lies and would to go to war to prove it.

Short Story: Snowbound

Tufted fur of an emaciated snow hare tousled in cold wind, its slow half-hop betrayed its own hunger and exhaustion. It had been a lean winter. Made leaner still by the utter lack of break between driving and falling snows. Even if the hare didn’t know, it was currently three-feet taller than it should’ve been.

It hopped a short distance to the edge of a tree trunk. Tension stiffened it. Its ears twitched and tuned like parabolics. The muscular kneading of all small creatures pulled and dropped at its face to sniff the air with foreboded curiosity.

For a long moment, all was still.

Instinct passed and the forager returned its face to the snow to will something from nothing. Background wind ensured it never heard the whistling shaft. One minute, it was living: the next, dead. Its hunger forever sated by the nothingness left over.

Izrik didn’t breath. He let the last of the bow’s vibration dissipate through him, admiring his shot with a professional pride. He had true skill as an archer. Shame it alone could not guarantee him a meal.

He eased from his knee, slinging his bow around across his chest and starting for the carcass. It lay, leaking steam and blood into frigid snow. If nothing else, he’d have a new wrap for his sword-hand. The last was frayed from hiking and walking sticks, rather than battle. He’d almost longed for battle. It was practical: he’d been crossing the tundra-wastes over a week now, each day signs of habitation growing sparser.

The birds had disappeared first. Even the Winter Raptors hunting wider-ranges were gone.

Izrik recognized the encroaching of a no-man’s land. The Tundra held no life beyond a certain point, but he was determined to cross it. To reach the lands beyond in search of food, Humanity… anything. He’d rationed just enough meat to get him through a few days of would-be hunger, was already used to sleeping in the permafrost after perfecting the art of iglooing.

Yet, the waning game and growing hunger in his belly nagged him. He knew he could not eat more than enough to sustain himself. Beyond wastefulness, it was dangerous to become fatigued from a full belly, but it made him tired not to eat too. Worse still, it made him weaker. Barren land or not, that was unacceptable. He’d need all of his strength to make it through.

He set camp for the night to eat what he could and preserve the rest. In the morning, he rose, leaving the igloo as he’d built it for someone or thing to find it useful. He picked a petrified limb from an ages-dead Hickory, more than adequate for its purpose and solid enough to give even an acolyte’s staff a run for its money. Then, used it to test the deepest drifts and set out.

Especially in clearings, there was no telling whether snow had formed coverings for pitfall traps of old-era buildings or machinery. He couldn’t say for sure of any around, especially given the snowbound terrain, but the petrified trees led him to doubt it. His usually-acute instincts were proven wrong moments later.

Izrik poked his hickory into a drift, felt it sink a few feet and thunk. Satisfied, he stepped into it, felt his legs sink the two feet to the hardened under-layer.

He’d not walked a half-step when he heard the crack! He leapt on instinct, sensing his mistake. His reflexes were good, but not enough. He fell downward, twenty or more feet, banging along smooth, thin metal with the violent ruckus of a bag of hammers poured over an anvil.

He tumbled downward through enclosed nothingness, fighting to right himself and keep his legs beneath him. The echoes were deafening, leaving him even more spun than lost gravity. He was soon sliding downward at impossible speeds, darkness swallowing him.

His senses sharpened. Leathers worked on order of muscle to slow him down. In a moment, the slope leveled out. Izrik was moving too fast. He burst from slatted sheet-metal that covered the shaft’s terminus. He burst out, catching himself on its edge with one hand. The other dangled, jammed with inertia over distant, clanging metal in pitch-blackness below.

His plight took only a breath to confront him. Straining groans of metal forced his arm up. He felt the shaft flex, scrambled to climb too-smooth metal. He’d only just clasped the edge again when a metallic snap cut the air. Gravity jerked downwardwith folding metal. The shaft’s underside slammed a concrete wall, looking distantly likea wilted metal flower touching its own stem. Izrik’s body followed through, slamming the wall front-on.

Wind knocked from his lungs, he lost his grip and fell into darkness.

He landed on his side on something heavy, coughing and scrambling for breath. On his hands and knees, gasping, he finally looked around: The darkness was thick, but the thing beneath him was heavy, wooden, smooth but unnaturally so.

Izrik managed enough of a grip on himself to stand. In a flash, he was blinded by a sudden, intense, light as which he’d never seen. Thousands of lamps and overhead lights flickered on. With them was the obvious whirring of something neither man nor animal. Machine, he guessed.

And in a moment, he understood the machines were all around him, connected to glowing panels.

His attention however, was drawn to one side of the room. A massive stockpile of metal cylinders spackled with pristine, colored paper lined the wall. He knew what it was without having to guess; food. Canned food. Old world, but good forever. His feet carried him with ethereal disjointedness but a large, colored emblem on the floor caught his eye mid-way.

He’d yet to grasp the whole of the room, but there on the floor, words he could read but didn’t understand; “Seal of the President Of the United States.”

President” was the only word that made sense, but it suddenly struck him. All of the Empires’ lies: from the Rebellion’s so-called pseudo-evidence. It was real. He alone had proof. Now, food enough to last in relaying it to another.

He circled a small gait, viewing the damage of the serendipitous– rather than unfortunate, tumble he’d taken. It was only then that his mind stopped swirling, and the immensity of what lay before him locked him still in the symbol’s center.

He could only breathe, “Woah.”